There’s good news and bad news about equality in higher education for African American college students.
According to a study released by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center on June 20, 2011, only 26 percent of African American men have at least an Associate’s degree. In addition, from 1976 to 2002, the number of bachelor’s degrees earned by black students, both male and female, dropped from 35% to only 20%.
These statistics reflect the long history of struggle and disappointment over equal access to higher education for African Americans in the United States. However, there is good news: More and more Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are trying to bridge the equal access gap by expanding into online education. In addition to initiatives by the colleges themselves, several other institutions and individuals have begun to step forward to create new opportunities for African American college students.
These efforts can help reduce the achievement gap for African American college students across the country. Statistics show that African Americans with a four-year college degree earn a substantially higher income than those with only some or no college experience. And black women are much more likely to complete a degree than black men, who have a higher drop-out rate. At a time when the economy is so unsteady, all students–including African American students–need to complete their degrees in order to secure employment. And while African American students have enrolled in high numbers in for-profit colleges such as the University of Phoenix, for-profit colleges have significantly low graduation rates.
That is why the initiative to expand into online degrees at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is so crucial. HBCUs have a rich heritage, proven academic standing, and have helped pave the way for opportunities in higher education for African Americans in the United States for over 150 years. Originally created to educate newly freed slaves and then to address educational inequality and the denial of higher education to black Americans during the era of legal segregation, today there are over 105 HBCUs across 20 American states, largely in the south, and in Washington D.C. and the Virgin Islands. Some of the most well-known HBCUs are Howard University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, Fisk University, Tuskegee University, and state schools such as Delaware State University. The White House even offers a comprehensive map of the nation’s HBCUs for students wishing to locate the nearest one.
While it is a common misunderstanding that HBCUs are only for African-Americans, they are not; HBCUs serve people of all backgrounds and economic status. While the majority of students at many HBCUs are African-American, anyone is able to attend. HBCUs have a significant tradition of academic excellence; most of them offer Bachelor’s degrees, while 52 provide Master’s degrees and 27 offer doctoral programs. These colleges and universities have produced some of America’s greatest political leaders, writers, artists. Famous graduates of HBCUs include Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who argued the Brown v. Board of Education case in front of the Supreme Court, and later became the first black US Supreme Court justice; civil rights leaders and politicians including W.E.B. DuBois, Julian Bond, Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, and Jesse Jackson; scientist George Washington Carver; writers Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Alice Walker; director Spike Lee; musician Branford Marsalis; and multimedia powerhouses Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Oprah Winfrey.
The importance that HBCUs place on equal opportunity and diversity makes such colleges a vital component of the higher education landscape, and American leaders have long recognized this. The rich legacy created by graduates of HBCUs has lead to several special White House initiatives to make sure that they receive a fair share of the U.S. education budget and appropriate policy attention. Jimmy Carter was the first American president to do so, and President Barack Obama recently issued a new White House initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Executive Order 13532 was issued on February 26, 2010, in order to “strengthen the capacity of HBCUs through increased participation in appropriate Federal programs and initiatives.” This is all part of the larger goal to “ensure that our Nation has the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.” Part of the White House program so far has been to increase the amount of Pell Grants that students at HBCUs are eligible for.
Tom Joyner, radio host of the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show, and himself a graduate of Tuskegee University, has created The Tom Joyner Foundation to raise money for HBCUs. So far, the Foundation has raised more than $55 million dollars to assist students at HBCUs. His website HBCUsOnline.com, provides students with lists of HBCUs and student assistance “from registration to graduation.” When it began to offer access to online college programs, Hampton University and State Texas Southern University joined, and Florida A&M University and Tennessee State University have recently signed on to Joyner’s site as well. Joyner’s initiative is important because, according to the White House, only 10% of the nation’s HBCUs currently offer online degrees.
Several prominent HBCUs have recognized this and are working hard to develop online programa as alternatives to the larger for-profit programs, which they regard as competition for the same students. For example, on June 23, 2011, Howard University announced that it would begin to offer its highly-regarded Masters of Business Administration (MBA) program online. Howard School of Business is ranked at the number one spot for minority MBA students; the expansion into online learning aims to address the economic realities that bright students face when they have to work full-time just to afford to go to college in the first place.
While some critics worry that online courses will prevent students from the social experience of attending a Historically Black College and University campus, which have been famous for their emphasis on student support, these initiatives to expand online opportunities at Historically Black Colleges and Universities can help address the shocking decline in graduation rates for African Americans. They offer flexibility, affordability, and an awareness of the important role of diversity in higher education. While they do not yet have the wide range of programs available at online for-profit colleges, they do offer a tradition of academic excellence and a connection to a rich cultural history that many students appreciate. In the next few years, online programs at HBCUs should continue to expand, to become a valuable addition to the world of online education.